The first time someone asked to kiss my stomach when hooking up, I said no. It made me tense, self-conscious. Every message I got about my body, about feminine bodies, told me the bulge in my belly was not sexy, not attractive, and was not going to make people want me. I couldn’t reconcile my internalized drive for thinness with a sweet kiss of adoration.
When my high school boyfriend came to visit me during my first semester at college, I asked him if he’d noticed the weight I’d gained. He shrugged, smiled and said he’d been enjoying my softness. I didn’t understand. I thought every pound mattered.
The next year, a friend from class came to my room to hang out one night while I was cleaning and doing laundry. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, my hair in a ponytail, with no makeup. It was very unusual for me at that time to not be wearing makeup. I probably wasn’t even wearing earrings. So when we were lying next to each other in that narrow little dorm room bed, and he wanted to kiss me, I was actually surprised. How could I be attractive, at that moment, looking like that?
The year after college, I went gluten-free as a way to address several health challenges. My weight plummeted, which at first filled me with a certain satisfaction, and then I started to wonder. I developed a mantra to repeat to myself when stepping on the scale: “Please, may I stay here? The point is not to disappear.”
I recently received this question from a reader:
I know this isn’t exactly your focus, but I thought you might be a good resource. I have a 3-year-old little girl who has recently been talking about her “big belly” and how she wishes it were smaller. I am really body positive, and I’m still feeling at a loss for good ways to talk to my daughter about her body. Do you have any ideas?
As I wrote years ago, learning to love and listen to our bodies is intricately related to embracing a healthy sexuality, and to how we build sexual connections with others.
Advice I’ve seen for parents includes modeling pride and comfort in your own body, avoiding comments on other people’s bodies, talking to your children about anything other than appearance, and supporting your children in exploring the power and potential of using their bodies as mediums for adventure and expression.
But you can do all of that, and it might not be enough. Body-positive parenting takes place in a body-shaming world. We need to directly address the shaming messages that children might get from outside the home, whether at school, in movies or on social media. We also need to be willing, as adults, to take a hard look at the more subtle ways our own years of exposure to body shame may be sneaking into our words, our actions and our relationships.
Speak directly with your child about body shame in addition to body love. Ask her what she’s hearing or seeing that might be related to her feelings about her tummy. Help her build a critique—where do media images come from? Why would our friends say things like that?
Then ask her what she wants to do to play an active part in shaping how she relates to her own body. Her relationship with herself is the core of her relationship with other people and how she moves through the world. Check out SPARK, Health at Every Size or my own Body Positive Challenge for examples, or collaborate with your child to find something the two of you can do together. Better yet, get the whole family involved! Not through a limited focus on diet and exercise, but through a broader focus on feelings and fun. Although mainstream messages about body shame tend to be quite gendered, addressing body shame will be most effective if we all do it together.
And for me, forming real connections with people who celebrate me and internalizing the love and validation that I receive from others has been a pivotal part of my own process of moving through body shame and finding physical pleasure and joy.
Readers, please comment to share links, reflections and your advice for this concerned parent!